Music soothes the Savage Beast. I first herd that quote as a boy while watching a scene on TV where Bugs Bunny was being chased by a gorilla. With the savage ape getting ever closer to his wisecracking nemesis—a violent fight seemed likely. Everything changed when Bugs picked up a violin and began to play. The aggression of the gorilla suddenly disappeared and the beast even began to dance around. The scene was comic and fit into my experience of their being wild and savage animals in the world in contrast to familiar and tame family pets.
Scientists have assembled considerable evidence that identifies dogs as being the first domesticated animal. Dogs are the descendants of wolves and between 30,000 to 10,000 years ago wolves somehow became incorporated into the camps of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. No one is exactly sure how the process unfolded—whether wolves gradually became familiar with humans in scavenging for food scraps around the campfire; or if while hunting a series of young wolf cubs were captured and raised by humans beginning the process of domestication. What is certain is that this process of domestication took place before the advent of agriculture and long before the Hebrew concept of their being only one God.
Today we celebrate the life of St. Francis. He was a 12th century saint who compared to his hunter-gatherer ancestors benefited from amazing leaps in human development. Francis lived in a refined and sophisticated world that benefited from advances in agriculture, saw the invention of the wheel, and the development of written language. The Hebrew people had shared with the world their belief in one God, and Christianity had proclaimed for centuries the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. In Francis’s day, churches worshiped with gorgeous Gregorian Chant.
Francis was the son of wealthy textile merchant and he lived a life that hunter-gathers could not have imagined. As a young man Francis enjoyed his wealth and had ideas of seeking military honor. Francis joined the military and soon saw action on the field of battle. There he witnessed the horrors of war and saw dozens of men left for dead. Francis was taken prisoner and held for some time until ransom demands were met. If Francis shared my childhood notion that only wild Beasts were savage and untamed—in war he learned that there can exist something savage within the human heart.
Sometime after Francis returned home he had a roadside encounter with a leper. Something in that encounter resonated with Francis. It changed his heart. He began to identify with Christ and he eventually did a radical thing. Francis decided not just to minister to the poor—he decided to become poor. In order to fully live out the Gospel he gave away all that he had.
Francis it seems came to comprehend the essential truth of God’s love for him and the world, and he was moved to in turn share that love with others. And so began an incredible ministry. A ministry that understood that the love of God could transform a savage heart, and also knew that the love of God extended to animals and all of creation.
It’s strange to think that Francis’s life could be so transformed by an encounter with a leper. On this day it is also interesting to contemplate how once wild animals could become such blessings to us. Francis learned that both lepers and animals—each in their own way—point to God’s transformative love song for the world.
The next time you look into the eyes of your pet—think about how once there was a more wild and savage heart there. It just might remind us how God’s Song of Love has worked to transform the world. How God’s love song shaped and formed Israel. How God’s hymn was sung by Jesus and transformed his followers. When the tune of God’s song was picked up by Francis, the world began to understand that the whole of creation was embraced by God.
In the midst of this day’s blessings it’s strange to think that the pets among us were once savage or wild animals. The Feast of St. Francis reminds us that God’s love song comes to us through time affirming that: our hearts, our lives, our souls will be soothed and transformed by God’s steadfast Love.
Homily offered by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, at the 8:00am and 10:15am (outdoor) services, on 1 October 2017, The Feast of Saint Francis. Lessons: Galatians 6:14-18; Psalm 148:7-14; Matthew 11:25-30.
A few years ago, at a Sotheby’s Auction in England, a first edition of the book De revolutionibus, in English known as On the Revolutions, sold for over one million dollars. That’s not bad for a title that Arthur Koestler declared was “The book that nobody read.” If one had to judge only by the title, you might think that On the Revolutions, was about the American, French, or possibly other popular uprisings. Given that the author was Nicolaus Copernicus, and the full title of the book translated from Latin is Six Books on the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres—one can see that the valuation of the book rests upon the role that it played in changing humankind’s perception of our place in the universe.
Perhaps you have met the occasional person today who acts like they are at the center of the Universe and everything revolves around them—the fascinating thing about On the Revolutions is that 500 years ago, at the time of publication, everyone assumed that we as humans were at the center of creation—that we lived in a universe where God inhabited the heavens along with the sun, moon and all the planets—all which were believed to revolve around the earth. In his lifetime Copernicus was reluctant to publish his work placing the sun at the center of our solar system both because of his fear of public ridicule, and because he knew that his work would be seen as a challenge to the ultimate authority of the Church. Nicolaus Copernicus was deeply aware of both how tightly people could hold onto conventional wisdom and the way institutions resisted challenge to their authority.
Tomorrow, among the millions of people who people will view a full or partial Solar eclipse—most will not realize that after Copernicus published On the Revolutions it took another 100 years of dedicated work by scientists like Kepler and Galileo to complete the Copernican Revolution that forever changed the way that we think about our place in the world. In this Context, it is interesting to contemplate the magnitude of experience usually required for us to change our minds.
A long time ago I remember talking to a sales person who always anticipated resistance and so he began his sales pitch by asking the potential customer if they thought of themselves as an open minded person. The sales person’s experience was that many people already had a fixed framework for viewing the world. When you think about it there are many realms of life where one is penalized for changing one’s mind. Politicians encounter this all the time—the candidate who flip-flops is often portrayed as pandering, and yet there are times when a change of mind might actually point to a new insight and a real leap of growth. In my experience, when we approach reading and interpreting the Gospels, we usually look for consistency of thought and action—and this is especially so in the case of examining the life of Jesus. With all this in mind this morning’s Gospel presents us with a challenge because it is difficult to square the initial response of Jesus to the Canaanite woman with that of a caring and compassionate Savior.
As background for this morning’s Gospel, Jesus has engaged in his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing in the Galilee region of northern Israel. We are not given a reason why Jesus and his disciples travel to a non-Jewish region, a territory about 40 miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee. In the first century, Tyre and Sidon were prosperous Roman port cities located on the Mediterranean Sea. And there it is that Matthew tells us that a Canaanite woman approaches and shouts—acknowledging the elevated status of Jesus—and pleads with him to heal her daughter who is tormented by a demon. After the initial silence of Jesus—we note the annoyance of the disciples who say Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us. When the focus shifts back to Jesus he responds saying simply I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
It strikes one as more than odd that the reaction of Jesus already borders on callous—not offering to help a woman who is pleading on behalf of her daughter. When one thinks about how difficult it would be to go out into public and to plead and beg for healing—the next step is extraordinary. The woman kneels before Jesus and simply says Lord, Help Me.
As measured by the rest of the Gospel the next phrase uttered by Jesus is almost unfathomable. He Says It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. It’s stunning that Jesus would speak this way. At this point some commentators intercede on behalf of Jesus and say look—this is simply a case where Jesus is caught with his compassion down. This line of thought imagines that Jesus has been laboring without much of a break—and well—this woman just catches him at the wrong time. That reasoning would hold more sway—if the response of Jesus were just not so insulting. Taking the children’s food and throwing it to the dogs—is a cutting remark—Brutal—when placed in comparison to the request.
At this point one would not expect the Canaanite woman to withstand such an insult—but amazingly she manages to utter “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” It is a completely unexpected utterance. One of: determination, composure, and grace—to which Jesus finally responds Woman, great is your faith—and he heals her daughter.
It is an amazing exchange—for one’s sees the whole world view of Jesus suddenly open and expand. What for Jesus began as a mission solely to the people of Israel—has expanded to a foreign woman of the larger Gentile world. In a world dominated by tribalism Jesus is able to extend a healing hand across established religious divisions. The thing that is fascinating to me is that the woman somehow ceases to be seen as an annoying outsider to the faith clamoring for attention, but rather she is eventually treated simply as a woman with a sick daughter.
Some preachers have ventured to title their sermon on this text Canaanite Women’s Lives Matter in an attempt to highlight the blatant injustice and prejudice experienced by this first century group. I would observe that while such a label is apt and draws upon parallels in our own day—it is far too narrow to capture the full importance of this encounter. This healing is followed by instances where other classes of outsiders are welcomed and included. Jesus and his disciples had already extended their mission to those traditionally excluded: lepers, tax collectors and prostitutes, and soon after the Canaanite woman’s healing, Jesus welcomed a Samaritan woman and then healed the servant of a Roman Centurion. Each of these encounters provide further insights into the inclusiveness of God’s Kingdom.
Our christology—the way that we understand Jesus to be human and divine—usually leans towards emphasizing the divinity of Jesus. This tends to blind us from seeing moments where Jesus achieves human moments of real insight and growth. This is not a small point for if we claim that Jesus shares our humanity—then we should rightly look for a Savior who shares in our predicaments and struggles.
In this case, it is of some comfort to know that our efforts to overcome tribalism—our attempts to see beyond: our own people—our own group of comfort, is something that might take work and require growth. It is a measure of maturation to come to the realization that our race, our gender, our class our orientation, or even our Church, may not hold exclusive claim to the center of the Universe. The revolutionary lesson of this morning’s Gospel is that we ever are in need of finding ways to engage one another.
Over the past two weeks we have been reminded that this is the lesson that various “hate groups” have failed to grasp—and that attempting to lay exclusive claim to any form of tribal purity will ultimately fail. It’s as futile as trying to go back and argue that the sun really revolves around the earth. It was encouraging to see pictures of tens of thousands peaceful protesters gathering in Boston yesterday, and on Friday in Portland, Oregon, where the rather cleverly titled “Eclipse Hate” rally seemed to go off without incident.
The other important witness of the Gospel for us today is to note that Jesus and his followers did not occupy their time looking for groups to oppose—rather they bore positive witness by sharing the message and good works of the Gospel far and wide. To this end, The Southern Poverty Law Center offered the Boston rally and others the good advice to avoid direct contact with groups like the Neo-nazis or white nationalists since interacting with them only gives them a larger platform for spreading their message of hate.
In the weeks and months ahead we might be reminded that the revolution that Jesus set in motion—was most often seen and experienced through simple human encounters. We participate in that revolution when we set aside our tribal preconceptions and let God’s redeeming love shine through us—revealing that it is God’s love that can be found at the center of the Universe.
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, 20 August 2017, Year A. Lessons: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:[10-20],21-28.
Love Your Neighbor: Paul Among Jews and Gentiles
Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Eric Kimball Hinds
Almost 30 years ago, after I had made the decision to attend seminary, on a journey towards ordination to become an Episcopal priest, but before our young family of three had picked up and moved to The General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, a fellow parishioner presented me with the gift of a book—which was titled The Search for God at Harvard. The book had just been published and it was written by Ari Goldman whose name was well known to me—as he was a correspondent for The New York Times. At the time he wrote the weekly column on Religion. While working at The Times, Goldman managed to balance the demands of his Orthodox Jewish faith with the schedule and deadlines of a journalist—and incredibly was given a Sunday through Thursday workweek.
It was while he was the Religion Correspondent that Goldman hatched the idea of furthering his religion writing credentials by spending a year at the Harvard Divinity School—so that he could engage more deeply in the world of contemporary religions. One of the things that fascinated me about Goldman’s book was his description of how he was looking forward to directly encountering Christianity and gleaning insights of a faith so different from his own.
And so it surprised me when Goldman described that he felt kind of cheated—for most everywhere that he went he found that the Christians seemed to bend over backwards to apologize for the mention of Jesus. And I remember being so grateful for Ari Goldman’s observation for I eventually realized that he was describing the early stages of a process where many different religious traditions were just starting to think about, and feel their way through, finding ways to engage one another with the hope of building bridges of friendship across differences. And the immediate challenge that presents itself in such situations—is how do you on the one hand hold onto and value your own identity, while at the same time being welcoming and not feeling in competition with another?
Goldman attended Harvard Divinity School in the 1980’s—a time when many religious denominations were just beginning to venture beyond what I would describe as shells of isolation—a kind of religious protectionism that fears diluting or losing a perceived hold on truth more than exploring the benefits of getting to know your neighbor. The good news for us is that we benefit from decades of examples of communities reaching out beyond denominational identity to discover areas of shared interest while appreciating differences.
For some time now the lives of both Peninsula Temple Beth El and St. Matthew’s have intersected. We have worked together with Home & Hope, a local organization dedicated to
dealing with the issue of homelessness in our back yard. But it is really out of our joint participation in the Martin Luther King Day of Service—where among other things we discovered that our congregations have core groups of talented pancake flippers—that a set of relationships led to a set of mutual invitations to visit one another’s houses of worship.
On behalf of our entire congregation I just want to say how welcomed we felt last month when our unexpectantly large group accepted the invitation to attend your Shabbat Service and how thankful we are for your gracious and generous hospitality. We hope not only that we can reciprocate, but that our time together leads to an ongoing relationship marked by friendship and mutual affection.
Now at this point I will share that several of my parishioners—well actually quite a few—commented after attending the Shabbat service that they noticed that there was no sermon. (Now I want to be clear—it was not like a YES!! NO SERMON!!) It was more like an observation that was a kind of lament—for the observation I think betrayed a desire among our congregation to learn more about Judaism and to expand and deepen our knowledge of one another. Towards this end I would point out that in the past decades there has actually been a significant amount of attention given by biblical scholars to areas where our religious traditions intersect—a cooperative effort of scholarship that has done important work to remove old prejudices—and even in some cases lead to a deeper appreciation of our shared history.
In this morning’s first lesson we encountered a fairly famous passage where upon finding an altar dedicated To An Unknown God—the Apostle Paul takes the opportunity to preach to the Greeks in Athens about the God that he has come to know—Both through Judaism and his experience of the risen Christ. Nothing about this passage is simple—but I will point out that recent scholarship has highlighted that centuries of Christian interpretation have both forgotten and misunderstood important parts of Paul’s story and writings.
As a starting point most people do not know that Paul of the New Testament is one of only two Pharisees who have left behind any personal writings (Josephus is the other). On this basis alone says the Jewish biblical scholar Alan Segal—Paul is of interest for what his life can can tell us about first century Judaism. Digging deeper, one of the stereotypes of Paul, and the principle way that he has been understood through the centuries is as an apostate of Judaism—an individual whose conversion (temporary Emphasis) to Christianity can only be seen as affirming one tradition—and negating the other. And it is this trap—a false choice of extremes as applied to Paul—that has led to great misunderstandings.
Ari Goldman lamented that, by the time he got to Harvard, the groundbreaking Swedish New Testament scholar, Krister Stendahl, had left the faculty to serve as bishop of Stockholm. In his famous book, Paul among Jews and Gentiles, Stendahl persuasively argues that we should not properly speak of the conversion of Paul at all. Rather, Stendahl argues for adopting the language of prophetic call—a notion that comes to us from the Hebrew Scriptures. Stendahl at length details and articulates how Paul himself uses language that is very similar to the calls of the great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah to describe his intense religious experience of the risen Jesus. Stendahl goes a step further, and his insight is worth our study, for he points out that Paul’s Call is to a specific vocation—where he comes to see himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles—an Apostle of the one God who is the creator of both Jews and Gentiles.
A careful reading of today’s first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates Paul’s absolutely firm grounding in Judaism. I proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it….The Lord of Heaven and earth…From one ancestor he made all nations…We ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone….Paul’s experience is grounded in the Hebrew scriptures. In his preaching to the Gentile Greeks, Paul clearly has a foot in two worlds and elsewhere in his own writings he attempts to reconcile the two major strands of his religious experience. While Paul struggled to understand it—in his writings he affirmed God’s mysterious plan for the coexistence between Judaism and Christianity, and he cautioned the early church against harboring feelings of superiority.
Stendahl’s brilliant insights into the first century perspective of Paul helps to illuminate some of the tragic misunderstandings that followed as later generations of Gentile Christians lost sight of the foundational way that Judaism had informed Paul’s relationship with and love for God. We Christians are just now beginning to rediscover the depth of all that Judaism contributed to the Apostle Paul’s knowledge and love of God.
In his year at Harvard Ari Goldman attended many interfaith events and he described how on many occasions he could hear the voice of his Orthodox Rabbi—Rabbi Siegal in the back of his head, complete with the image of his waving a finger, warning of the dangers of interfaith encounters. I have likewise heard members of several Christian denominations express concerns about contact and exposure to doctrines that deviate from their particular faith. From our collective experience—of reaching out to others—-We know differently. In attending the services of other faiths Goldman described his visits this way. He observed: In each case I leave as a Jew, rooted in my own faith—but nourished by the faith of others. That is do wonderfully stated.
As our visitors you have landed in the midst of our ongoing celebration of Easter. Part of the joy of our celebration on this day is knowing that we worship a God who is greater than our individual capacities of knowing and comprehension. We have come to know that we need one another, not only to strengthen the fabric of our larger community, but to learn from one another the many ways that God is at work in the world—in the midst of God’s many and varied people. We gather this day with great joy to affirm that we worship a God who is greater than our differences. A God who calls us to above all reach out and to get to know and love our neighbors.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on 21 May 2017, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A on the occasion of a visit by members from the congregation of Peninsula Temple Beth El. Lessons: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21.
Most people become claustrophobic just at the thought of entering a long, narrow, dark tunnel—so imagine being stranded within a section of a tunnel deep within a mountain. Dampness hanging about you. And as you venture to move forward in the pitch dark, instead of finding solid ground, your foot steps into a pool of icy cold water. That little splash in fact marks the edge of a great underground lake. It is here, deep under the earth on the edge of a deadly cold body of water, that the reader eventually encounters the grotesque slimy creature named Gollum.
As J.R.R. Tolkien narrates the story it is the not-so-willing adventurer Bilbo Baggins, who finds himself alone in a tunnel, separated from his Companions. And it is Bilbo’s foot that discovered the lake edge. And as in any good Adventure story, after escaping from the clutches of horrible goblins, Bilbo, now alone in the tunnel, at the edge of an underground lake, is about to face a new challenge.
From an outpost upon a slimy island of rock, out in the middle of that same cold dark lake, Gollum heard the splash of water. With his two big round pale eyes in his thin face Gollum could see Bilbo across the lake. Described as “dark as the darkness itself” without making a sound Gollum gets into his little boat and silently paddles towards Bilbo, his large feet dangling over the side, heading toward the unsuspecting Bilbo. Gollum got his name from the horrible gurgling noise made in his throat when he spoke, and Gollum would normally think nothing of sneaking up behind a stray goblin, or in this case a hobbit, and strangling them in cold blood to provide a tasty meal.
For those of you who have read the book The Hobbit which is a prelude of sorts to the Lord of the Rings, trilogy, this encounter between Bilbo and Gollum sets the stage for the great drama that takes the rest of the trilogy to unfold. For in this meeting, one learns that Gollum has been the finder and custodian of a ring so powerful—that it corrupts anyone who wears it.
In Gollum, Bilbo encounters a creature that was once a hobbit like himself; Yet, as a result of being subjected to centuries of the corroding influence of the ring, Gollum is almost unrecognizable—the ring has twisted both his Hobbit body and mind in grotesque ways. The only thing that saves Bilbo in this unexpected meeting, is that Gollum has lost the ring, and he wonders if Bilbo might have found it.
In literature, a good villain or foe is not easy to conceive and execute—and one of the examples of why The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are able to transcend the label of mere “escapist fantasy” can be found by examining the complexity of the character of Gollum. In Gollum readers encounter a repulsive creature capable of horrible deeds and yet that reality is tempered by Tolkien who eventually provides the knowledge that Gollum was once a ordinary hobbit. That there was, and perhaps still is, a goodness deep within Gollum that has been buried.
Without specifically talking about Theology, Tolkien effectively supplies the reader with the notion that Gollum might indeed have been created with an inherent goodness. A Christian might put it as—created in God’s image—with the observation that aspects of life can combine and converge in such a way that the original goodness is all but covered up.
Much further into the saga of The Lord of the Rings, when a Bilbo’s son Frodo suggests that perhaps they all would be better off if Bilbo had just done away with Gollum when he had the chance back in that very first encounter—it is Gandalf, the wise wizard, who Observes that: perhaps for Gollum—all is not lost—that there yet may be a role for him to play in their mission against the powers of darkness.
In the first century, in the region of Galilee, at the tax-booth near the sea—it would have been difficult to find a more despised and hated man than Matthew, the tax collector. Tax collectors were sell-outs. Roman sympathizers. Betrayers of the Hebrew people, they were willing to sell friends, family and neighbors, down the river—causing real pain and financial hardship. As a religious Jew, suffering under Roman occupation, to befriend Matthew would be akin to saying you were disowning your family and casting your lot with the worst of the wretched. And yet, in this morning’s Gospel we are given a scene where Jesus, while walking along, sees Matthew at his tax booth—and it seems almost casually that he offers an invitation: Follow Me.
Follow Me!? If there were any crowds around, that simple invitation would be like tossing a live grenade into the center the gathering. The text tell us that the Pharisees were appalled—but this action by Jesus would certainly also have stunned Andrew, Peter, James and John—the hardworking fisherman who were the first to respond to the invitation of Jesus when he said Follow Me. That Jesus was willing to invite: a known sell-out, a professional sinner, Our Patron Saint!, must have seemed unfathomable to his followers. And yet the fact that, upon seeing Matthew, knowing all about his livelihood, the horrible opinions that others held against him—knowing all this—and that Jesus still reached out and invited Matthew—-WELL, IT MUST TELL US, It Must Point us Towards—something profound about the way that followers of Jesus are invited to look at the world—The way that we are invited to look at and behold one another.
Where others looked and saw only a despised tax-collector—somehow Jesus was able to see beyond all the things wrong with Matthew—and grasp the beauty and goodness of his inner being. If Matthew were a portrait of a fractured and broken individual—then Jesus managed to see the light shining through the cracks, and Jesus was willing to include Matthew knowing that fellowship with followers passionate for love and fellowship with God and one another had the power to transform Matthew’s life.
This morning we have a Baptism, and it seems to me one of the significant aspects of having a Baptism on this day, The Feast of St. Matthew, is that we make explicit what Jesus implied in his call of Matthew so long ago—that each of us Come into the world created in the Image of God bearing the indelible mark of our creator’s goodness—and that Nothing can ever change that basic fact. Sure it is true that in the course of life we may make mistakes, and that things happen to us that can partially cover-up or obscure that image of goodness, but baptism reminds that that we are ever God’s own—called to a lifelong relationship with God.
Today, our ancient ritual of baptism with water and our invocation of the Holy Spirit, will initiate Sidney into a formal relationship with God and with this congregation, the gathered people of God. And together we will affirm that nothing will ever be able to break the bond of being a valued child of God with unique gifts to share with the world.
As each of us grow, we inevitably make mistakes, missteps in the wrong direction. Perhaps even there has been a time in your life that has resembled flowing a path into a darkening tunnel. A time of uncertainty and doubt. Some have experienced times where reality itself seems twisted around, with the goodness of life distorted and barely recognizable. The exciting part of this Day, a Day with a Baptism on the Feast of St. Matthew is that it reminds us that no matter how difficult or tough is our journey—we can never reach a place beyond the reach of the loving embrace of God. That our lives are never severed from the possibility of transformation and new growth. By extension, this is the good news of the Gospel that we can share with family, friends and our larger community
In the our life journey, we are unlikely to meet characters as lost or as desperate as Gollum, or shunned to the extent of Matthew the tax collector, but we will undoubtedly encounter individuals who have to some lesser extent lost their way. Sometimes it may even be ourselves who have gone off course. And In each case, this day reminds us that Jesus ever extends an invitation—that a new future is always possible, and will open up for us when we respond to the simple invitation to follow me.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on 18 September 2016, The Feast of Saint Matthew and the occasion of the baptism of Sidney Thomas Hills. Lessons: Proverbs 3:1-6; Psalm 119:33-40; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; Matthew 9:9-13.
Imagine there’s no heaven….
It’s the opening lyric of a song that ventures to reflect upon and imagine a better world.
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
And so the song makes a start at pealing away religious imagery—beginning a critique of traditional belief that reaches a fuller development in the second stanza.
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
From where we stand today, 36 years after the death of John Lennon, the songwriters words seem particularly poignant. While one marvels at the beauty of the spectacle of the parade of the athletes at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Rio—the gathering of the nations also contains a reminder of the divisions that plague us around the world. We live with the awareness that fresh conflict could erupt in the Middle East—or that tensions between Russia and the Ukraine could continue to escalate—or that China’s oceanic land claims could become problematic. These and a dozen other scenarios could prompt one to lament of the destructive aspects of nationalism, that seem to thwart a peaceful future. And the line
Nothing to kill or die for
and no religion too
reminds us of the way that religion can combine with political ideology to produce a deadly cocktail of hate and violence—as we are acutely aware in the cases of al Qaeda and ISIS.
Because some of the lyrics of the song Imagine seem to negate religious belief—many were led to conclude that Lennon had become an atheist and was antagonistic towards religion. Most of us have had the experience of our religion and faith posing some measure of challenge—either towards our understanding or the exercise of faith.
A quick look at this morning’s gospel poses several challenges. Are we for example—really convinced that we should sell all our possessions and distribute the resulting heap of cash to those who have even less? Or are we actually prepared to remain in a state of constant vigilance for the apparent coming end of times—at an unexpected hour as the teaching of this morning’s gospel indicates? And probing the gospel even further are we really comfortable with a text that has an example that seems to be comfortable with the institution of slavery as a backdrop for making a point about being ready to encounter God? On the road for developing a mature faith the thinking person encounters many challenges—and sometimes, when the going becomes difficult, one can be tempted to toss the whole religious venture aside. And so one of the challenges for organized religion—is to resist the temptation to present a simple faith that requires little investment of time and little thought—and instead promote an active faith engaging the complexity and paradox of the modern world—ultimately pointing toward a transcendent God.
Coming at the challenge of engaging with the Christian faith from a helpful direction, the Christian contemplative, Richard Rohr, wonders how do we deal with the Inherent Unmarketability of the Christian Faith. He asks: “How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability, and nonsuccess? How can you possibly market letting-go in a capitalist culture? How do you present Jesus to a Promethean mind set? And how do you talk about dying to a church trying to appear perfect?”
As a person who practices contemplation Rohr observes that in the fast pace of the world—moving from one activity to the next—life can look and feel like we are on the edge of a non stop merry-go-round—where we have lost the ability to ever find the quiet, stable and secure center. And it is at this point, almost worn out by the velocity of living, that some begin to wonder if they have missed something significant in the realm of Religious life. This is the experience says Rohr, that opens the door for a fresh exploration (perhaps again for the very first time) of the deep roots of Christian spirituality and prayer.
You may find it interesting to know that John Lennon grew up attending his local Anglican church. He went to Sunday School, was a chorister and was active in the youth group. Beatle fans will be amused to learn that in the cemetery that surrounded Lennon’s parish church there was a tombstone with the name Eleanor Rigby. After confirmation, as Lennon entered young adulthood and drifted away from regular worship—it would be a mistake too say that he became non-religious. Most artists are keen observers of the world and like the religious mystics—Lennon often invites a deeper contemplation of the world and our place in it.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
Wait a minute—that’s what Jesus said
No need for Greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Again the deeply religious thoughts of Jesus and the Gospel. It’s as if we need these images—endangered of being lost or swallowed up—they find a way to bubble back to the surface to register deep within our psyche—allowing us to search and to press on for deeper connections with God and our fellow humans.
Religious people are shaped by images. They point to a new reality. By letting go of possessions Jesus was attempting to point to establishing new relationships—unburdened by who owns what. In pointing to the end of times, Jesus ventured to have his followers savor every moment and fill every human encounter with meaning. By having the owner of the house return only to invite the servants to sit and eat while being served by their master—was to undermine, and effectively begin to overturn the whole notion of slavery. Deeper religious thought and engagement begins when we stop to reflect upon God and our place in the world.
On one level, over these past few days, we simply started watching a series of athletic contests unfolding in Brazil in the midst of a predictable list of problems and setbacks. The cynic can sit back and declare what a waste of time and resources. And yet at another level, gathering the nations of the world together to participate in a common event is a great feat of the imagination, and it plants the notion in the recesses of the mind that if this is possible—so are perhaps many other things that we currently think are unattainable.
Jesus did not coin the phrase Your God is too small, yet—it is a fitting phrase, for Jesus invited his followers to dream about a better future and to invest in relationships; to spend time getting to know one another and to know God. Jesus reminds us that prayer and reflection is not wasted effort. Rather, He Announces that it is a deeply religious activity seeking to be an active participant in better world—ultimately bringing to life a vision of God’s kingdom that is only limited by the depths of our imagination.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, on 7 August 2016, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C. Lessons: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40.
Imagine walking—ticket in hand towards a stadium that holds over 70,000 people. Imagine the challenge just getting there! Everyone is dressed for a spectacle. Long forgotten are the concerns about financing the stadium, or the length of time for the construction. An event of super natural proportions will put the entire region on the map.
Once at the stadium you can feast upon a wide variety of cakes, pastries, dates, sweetmeats, and generous cups of wine—all served by handsome stewards passing through the crowds. If the sun gets too hot you will be shielded from the sun by means an enormous awning drawn to provide shade. Imagine: 300 tons of iron used in the construction; 100,000 cubic meters of Travertine stone.
In the year, 80 AD, with ticket in hand, you too could gain admission to the Roman Colosseum for the inaugural 100 days of games, which featured a parade, gladiator battles, wild hunts, and animal fights. Admittedly entertainment much more brutal that today’s Super Bowl contest between two football teams—but it was a show that filled the Colosseum to capacity and left crowds wanting more.
By comparison, Levi Stadium, the site of today’s big game, is billed as the most technologically advanced arena for sporting and other events. The $1.2 billion structure is LEED gold certified with a green living roof, and Wi-Fi throughout the stadium. Fans are able to order food and drink during the game via a mobile app. and have their exact order delivered to their seat. A 200 foot wide HD screen in the stadium provides instant replay for fans to review game highlights, and almost every space has multiple TV screens to ensure that no one misses a single game moment.
Knowing our joy and delight in all the features of modern technology—-I wonder if anyone attending those inaugural games at the Roman Colosseum could have imagined anything better or more advanced? I rather imagine an awed spectator turing to their host and saying at those ancient games something like Peter said to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel “Gee this experience is so great—let’s try to preserve it for all time for I can not imagine anything better.” or perhaps simply “Wow! It doesn’t get any better than this!”
And a statement like that should always give us pause for thought—for history shows us that few of us would ever really like, when it comes down to it, to be frozen in time. The brutal violence of the first century, spectators watching gladiators fight to the death, and animals being slain for sport, are the least of the problems with a first century version of the good old days.
Unlike today’s Super Bowl, which takes a free market approach to seating, in the world of the Colosseum there was strict seating policy distinguishable by both class and dress. Roman senators sat within the 1st tier of the stadium. Members of the nobel class sat within the second. Ordinary Roman citizens sat in the third tier, which was further divided into the wealthy and poor sections. Common women were relegated to the nosebleed section, relegated to the upper tier. Except for combatants, slaves were strictly forbidden from the Colosseum. Although construction of the Colosseum began about 40 years after the death of Jesus—-this was the Roman society with which Jesus was familiar. A rigid and often brutal hierarchical society that lived off the underclass. A society where the many, were in service to the few.
We encounter this morning’s gospel text just before the start of the season of Lent each year, and it comes as a kind of reminder that it is easy for religious people to become used to the way things are and even become complacent. In this mornings Gospel, we see that even after Peter, James, and John share an intense experience, a revelation of sorts about who Jesus is—and Peter desperately wanting to hang on that experience, to preserve it—it is Jesus who points his three disciples forward. Forward towards the Journey and discovery ahead. He refuses to dwell in the past.
And thank goodness Jesus moved on. Not only did Jesus move forward, but others continued to add to the work and ministry of Jesus. His disciples continued the proclamation of a Gospel of transformation and love. They continued his ministry of healing, as the movement we know as Christianity began to spread. The Apostle Paul opened up the mission of Jesus to the gentiles—a stunning development! And so one can see why Jesus had a sense of not wanting to dwell in the past, but to move forward.
Unfortunately, the liberating work of Jesus in welcoming women to share in his ministry was a window that would close by the end of the 2nd century. This was a setback one could argue that we, as the church, are only just now really beginning to set right these two millennia later. Likewise, it took people of faith a long time to wrestle with the often overlapping issues of slavery and race, let alone address issues of reproduction or sexual identity.
Today we are at a time and place where many in the church want to hold on to those things and those patterns that have been successful in the past—and in light of this morning’s lesson we might wonder whether Jesus would indulge our stopping to remain in the same place, or whether Jesus would have us move on looking for the next emerging area of ministry.
In a provocative article, ChristianWeek columnist, Carey Nieuwhof, makes ten predictions about the future of the Christian Church and shifting attendance patterns. I have selected five this morning that I think are worth our contemplation. Carey’s second point, I will give first as it is perhaps the most provocative. It is simply “Churches that love their Model MORE than their Mission—Will Die.” “We live in a changing world” observes Carey “and just about every industry has had to change. It would be a strange world indeed if the church did not have to change in some ways as well.” Another way of making this same observation is by asking the question “What are the seven words of a dying Church?” The answer that should give us pause for thought is: We never did it that way before!
If Carey’s second prediction seems too pessimistic—then his first prediction is positive and forward looking. He observes “As despairing or as cynical as some might be (sometimes understandably) over the church’s future, we have to remind ourselves that the church was Jesus’ idea, not ours.” He goes on to predict that It [The Church] will survive our missteps and whatever cultural trends happen around us. We certainly don’t always get things right, but Christ has an incredible history of pulling together Christians in every generation to share his love for a broken world. A point both simply stated and encouraging!
Prediction Three: The Gathered Church—is here to stay. We may have to discover different patterns and our gatherings may look different than they do today, but at its heart Christianity is a communal Venture. Carey affirms that Christians “will always gather together to do more than we ever could on our own.” To which I might add that: In the midst of a society where people increasingly feel isolated from one another—the body that gathers in Christ’s name has a unique role to play in knitting people together into a community that lives for more than itself. A community that provides a sense of meaning and belonging.
Prediction Four: The Online Church—and Online Ministries will supplement individual religious Journeys, but they will never replace actual gatherings and time spent in community. This is in a way similar to observations about online dating. While the internet may have an increasing importance and significance in the way that people find one another and interact—ultimately people desire face to face interactions and community rather than sustained isolation.
Prediction 5—I might say is actually a Challenge. “Simplified ministries will complement people’s lives, not compete with people’s lives.”(repeat) Here it is worth quoting Carey Nieuwhof at length He observes: For years, the assumption has been that the more a church grew, the more activity it would offer. The challenge, of course, is that church can easily end up burning people out. In some cases, people end up with no life except church life. Some churches offer so many programs for families that families don’t even have a chance to be families. The church at its best has always equipped people to live out their faith in the world. But you have to be in the world to influence the world. Churches that focus their energies on the few things the church can uniquely do best will emerge as the most effective churches moving forward. Simplified churches will complement people’s witness, not compete with people’s witness.
This Friday and Saturday your Vestry spent time together, planning and contemplating the future of our Church. It is clear to us that we are in the midst of changing times. In the midst of challenging times. In the midst of exciting times. We are on a Journey together. As we move forward as a parish it will take the gathered wisdom, the collective insights, and assembled energy of our entire community to discern how our future will unfold together. As tempting as it would be to stay at the mountaintop, preserving a moment in time. The Good news of the Gospel today—the exciting news for us is that—our collective future lies in letting Jesus lead us forward. Both, re-affirming old truths, and discovering new ways to be the church in this community for one another and for the larger world. It will at times I’m sure, be a journey of anxiety and challenge, but it’s a journey that we will be on together.
Sermon preached at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California, on 7 February 2016, The Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Transfiguration and Super Bowl Sunday), Year C. Lessons: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4.2; Luke 9:28-36 (37-43a).
Every time I hear this passage from Mark, I think back to my Spiritual Director in Philadelphia…. We had a love/hate relationship (at least on my end)….she taught me a lot but I probably would have heard her better had she not been so direct and confrontational. But when I told her I was moving and I was trying to figure out which moving company to use and what I needed to bring. She responded a bit callously in my opinion, “you don’t need a moving company. Just sell it all, leave it all behind.”
I left angry and mad….and figured I would never see her again….so there.
What I realized…is that her response to me was simply more than I could process in my naieve youth, in my pridefulness….. in my stressed out state of uncertainty
I had spent the three years prior to seminary in joyful accumulation of stuff.
What’s more is….working at Crate and Barrel, accumulation of nice stuff. ….I’ll be the first to admit that some of it I “needed” and some of it I’m sure I didn’t “need.”
But the reality is that how hard I had worked to get where I was, to acquire what I had…..got in the way of me being able to hear what my spiritual director was saying….what Jesus was saying….
“he ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics….” (Mark 6:8)
Huh? Are you serious?? Give the man some water, he must be dehydrated…he’s going mad….
I’d like to think that if I was a disciple and was there,
I would have listened to every single word of Jesus,
and did just what he asked…..
But given my track record of abandoning my possessions, or rather, not abandoning my possessions, I am fairly certain that if I was one of the twelve….and I was there in Nazareth….and I had just seen Jesus’ rejection, in, of all places, his very own hometown…..and saw the grumbling crowds, gossiping about the “carpenter”….and his failure to convince the crowds…..
the very last thing I would have done….was follow him….
And yet the disciples went off two by two. On their way….to preach repentance, cast out demons, and anoint the sick with oil. They had a clear sense from Jesus “welcome” in Nazareth what they were in for…..and yet they went on their way regardless…..
They responded, by what can only be described as faith.
An unbridled faith in God.
Faith that Jesus was more than a crazy carpenter.
Only faith…..could lead someone to sacrifice the way they sacrificed…
Only faith….could subside their worries about what they would wear or where they would sleep
Only faith….could calm their skepticism
This week as I frantically filed papers and straightened my office I came to the stark realization that if I didn’t go on vacation or take trips, my office would quickly resemble something shy of hoarders. You see, before vacation I take to cleaning pretty much everything…my home…my office…my car….its nice to come back to everything in order….like coming home to something special or new.
My desk nicely cleaned off….
I quickly set to the next task of packing….
This being my least favorite part of time away….next to the airport.
I’m not an overpacker per say….but by the time I get my 5 days worth of clothing pulled together….my suitcase is well on its way from a light carryon to an overstuffed, checked bag with one of those bright orange “heavy” or “overweight” tags on it.
No matter how much I pare down my bag for the journey….
When I get to my destination it somehow always borders on the absurd when I open it up.
Why on earth did I bring a sweatshirt to Massachusetts in the dead of the summer?
Just in case.
Or end up with 10 pairs of socks for a 3 day trip?
Just in case.
Or endless craft projects “to do on the airplane”, when I always just sleep?
Just in case.
What we are reminded of in today’s gospel…
is that God is supposed to be our……..“Just in case.”
God becomes all the disciples need, in order for them to be on their way,
And for us today…..challenged to spread the Good News by what we say, and do, and how we live our life…it should be EVEN easier than it was for the disciples
….for our faith has been strengthened and solidified in the faithfulness of God made known to us through Jesus
the king born in a barn…..
the carpenter turned messiah……
the crucified and risen…..
If we are to truly understand our calling as disciples….. HE becomes all we need for our journey ahead…our journey as Easter people….our journey as Christians.
The disciples had faith……and yet when they are called to surrender their lives, they did….and they did so without having the benefit of knowing the resurrected Christ, and yet they went on their way two by two regardless.
Part of the journey of discipleship, is not getting it right or perfect ALL the time…the disciples knew the road wouldn’t be smooth…and the hospitality wouldn’t be overflowing…..but they still responded out of faithfulness.
The Gospel message is not about getting it right all the time…..or being perfect……(though sometimes we may think it is).
In reality the Gospel message is about our faithfulness….
And at the end of the day that is all that is asked of us…
It’s about how we respond to the call…to the challenge…to our commissioning.
It’s about learning about ourselves….
paying attention to when we resist….
when we question….
when we are uncomfortable…
When that spiritual director…told me to sell everything….I got so defensive and so upset….and it triggered something in me that made me feel sick inside….partly because I knew she was right…
I knew what scripture said…
i knew the theology…
I knew what it meant to be a follower of Christ…
but I was so connected to my stuff that I couldn’t help but react….
From that moment…I have never packed for anything without questioning what I am bringing with me….
From the easier questions like….
What baggage are you taking on this vacation that can be left behind???
To the more difficult questions….
On this journey of life….what is making your sack heavier than it needs to be???
How often do you rely on faith, and LET Jesus, be your “just in case”???
Don’t let me fool you by any means….i still get one of those bright orange “heavy” tags every once in awhile… but what I can tell you is that….I think twice with every single thing that goes in my bag….
The good news is that we don’t need to be perfect….just faithful.
And that is what we are invited to remember…..but more importantly LIVE into today…..
This past week we watched several major stories weave their way through our consciousness. The tragic events of South Carolina were brought into sharper focus and context this week with the delivery of President Obama’s eulogy at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown. We also had a landmark decision delivered by The United States Supreme Court affirming that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law applies to same-sex marriage; And yesterday, in Salt Lake City Utah, where the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is underway, the House of Bishops elected, with the House of Deputies confirming, The Right Reverend Michael Curry, Diocesan Bishop of N. Carolina, to serve as the Presiding bishop of our church for the next nine years. Bishop Curry will be the first African American to serve our denomination in the role of Presiding Bishop.
In the midst of these headlines there was story the for the most part slipped in under the radar. It was the press release of a personal letter written 17 years ago from Coretta Scott King to Dennis and Judy Shepard. In the year 1998, the death of the Shepard’s son Matthew, who was a student at the University of Wyoming, made National News not just because of the brutality of the beating that led to Matthew’s death, but because the severity of the attack was directly related to the assailants learning that Matthew was gay.
The letter from Coretta Scott King to Matthew’s parents reads as follows:
Dear Mr. and Mrs Shepard,
I was stunned and deeply saddened to learn of the killing of your beloved son Matthew Shepard. On behalf of Dexter Scott King, The King Center, and the King Center family, I send our heartfelt condolences, our love and prayers to your family in your hour of bereavement.
Clearly, your Matthew was a fine young man, a kind and open-hearted person who believed in human rights and the dignity of all people. The outpouring of sympathy from his many friends, as well as his family, is a testament that he was a caring and much loved human being, and his loss diminishes us all.
The epidemic brutality that took your son’s life and has caused so much pain to your family must be confronted and stopped. Americans of conscience must work a lot harder to eliminate this sick culture of violence that threatens even our best and our brightest.
Matthew Shepard will be sorely missed. But we will be praying that your family will soon be unburdened by the knowledge that his beautiful spirit will live on in the hearts of all those he touched.
Sincerely, Coretta Scott King.
One of the things notable about Coretta Scott King’s letter is her obvious empathy for both the Shepard family’s pain and for the struggles faced by all members of the larger Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community. It is a courageous letter because there was at time when considerable pressure existed, within a part of the Civil Rights community, not to acknowledge the pain and suffering within the gay rights movement as being on a par with the struggle for racial equality. And what Coretta King acknowledged was that ignorance and prejudice that results in the infliction of pain and injustice anywhere, no matter what the source, threatens to diminish the fabric of our Society and the quality of life everywhere. And so Coretta King’s letter of 17 years ago gives us insight and adds depth to the varied stories behind two of the notable symbols that have marked this week past—the confederate flag and the rainbow flag.
One can not help but notice that our 150th anniversary celebration of the establishment of St. Matthew’s as a parish—also marks 150 years since the end of the Civil War. 150 years since the end of the Civil War is the principle fact that makes the shooting and death of 9 members of a noted African American Church in Charleston so painful. For aside from the tragic loss of life, the shooting reminds us that issues of race and racism still haunt our nation, despite the fervent prayers of many to the contrary.
Perhaps we are simply naive in our expectation that seven generations would be enough time for the wounds inflicted by the brutal institution of slavery to end. Or Perhaps we have been blind to the power of the structures, symbols and language of oppression that still exist: De facto segregation, racial profiling an unequal prison system, and other factors that work to undermine the proposition that: Black Lives—do indeed—Matter.
In his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, President Obama made reference to a persistent symbol of oppression when he noted that ‘…we all have to acknowledge [that] the (Confederate) flag has always represented more than ancestral pride. For many, black and white, that flag was a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation. We see that now.” And then our President added to Governor Haley’s call to remove the Confederate flag from the states capital by observing that:
“Removing the flag from this state’s capital would not be an act of political correctness. It would not an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong. The imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.
It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history, a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds. It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races, striving to form a more perfect union.
And the President concluded his thoughts by proclaiming that:
“By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.”
The important principle for us to wrestle with—what I think lies behind the Presidents words—is that leaders, and those who are in power, bear an added obligation to work to eliminate and remove barriers that are placed in the path of those seeking recognition healing and justice.
At first glance, it might appear that this morning Gospel, a passage that sets out to tell the story of the Healing of Jairus’s daughter, has little to do with the events of this past week. If you listen carefully there were actually two stories within the gospel passage: the story of the women suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years is kind of sandwiched into the middle of the other story. And at first you may think How strange that this woman with hemorrhages who suddenly appears in the crowd. And you might say 12 years—how awful—-but you do not know the half of it. As an observant Jew in the time of Jesus the woman’s life would have been further constrained by the laws of Moses
Leviticus Chapter 15 lays out that: When a woman has a discharge of blood she shall be in her impure for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean. The law further states that: Everything upon which she lies or sits during her impurity shall be unclean… And whoever touches her bed shall must wash their clothes, and be unclean until the evening.
Effectively the purity law that applied to the hemorrhaging woman would have condemned her to 12 years of strict social isolation. Cast in that light—it is amazing that this woman, who we are told had endured so much, even makes it to a public place to come into contact with Jesus. By itself, the healing of the hemorrhaging woman is remarkable, yet perhaps even more notable is that Jesus is primarily interested in the plight and the humanity of the woman—more than he is in the dogma & social structures that have effectively shut her out of the community for half her life. On that day, in one breathtaking encounter with a hemorrhaging woman, Jesus began to change the whole notion of who was acceptable before God—and worthy of healing and wholeness.
It has ever been the work of the church to continue to engage in that conversation—asking if there are any groups within the people of God who bear the burden of less than full acceptance for reasons that cease to match our current understanding of our common human condition. With regard to sexual orientation and identity our denomination by different means has reached a conclusion similar to that upheld by the Supreme Court. It was Justice Kennedy who explained:
the Constitution’s power and endurance rest in the Constitution’s ability to evolve along with the nation’s consciousness. In that service, Kennedy said, the court itself has recognized that new insights and social understandings can reveal unjustified inequality within our most fundamental institutions that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged.
Following in the footsteps of Jesus, it is our vocation to take notice and to challenge the status quo and address inequality in the world around us. You many not be familiar with the writings or sermons of our New Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, but I want to conclude with the thoughts of another African Anglican Leader. Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered these thoughts in the year 1991. He related this short Vignette:
At home in South Africa, I have sometimes said in big meetings, where you have black and white together: “Raise your hands!” Then I’ve said, “Move your hands,” and I’ve said “look at your hands—different colors representing different people. You are the rainbow people of God.” And you remember the rainbow in the Bible is the sign of peace. the rainbow is the sign of prosperity. We want peace, [We want]prosperity, And [We want] justice—-And we can have it when all the people of God, the rainbow people of God, work together.
Sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California on The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost on 28 June 2015, Year B. Lessons: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43.
One Saturday morning, two weeks ago, I was walking in downtown San Francisco. As I looked about I noticed One—then two—then three individuals—ordinary people—dressed in santa suits, walking along the sidewalk. It seemed a little strange, but before I could dismiss the sightings as some kind of fluke convergence—I in quick order noticed santas number 5, 6, 7, & 8, and then I noticed that all the santas seemed to be walking in the same direction. As I moved closer to the shopping district the concentration of santas increased so much so that, if one had a bird’s eye view from high above the city, it would look like there were many small rivers of red swelling and flowing into a huge reservoir of santas that were spilling out of Union Square. There were traditional older santas—but many more younger santas. There were black and oriental santas. There were women santas in stylish suits. santas wearing sunglasses, santas in bars, and random santas giving out gifts.
I eventually discovered that I had stumbled upon individuals intent upon participating in Santa-con—a combination pub crawl, fashion event and flash mob—where the common denominator seemed to be individuals sharing in the joy of donning santa outfits and assuming the persona of the world’s most well known gift giver.
At one level, Santa-con seems like a distant cousin 3 times removed from our gathering this evening. Yet one could make the case that the San Francisco sea of santas are removed from the story of the nativity by only two degrees of separation. One step closer to the nativity story is St. Nicholas. As you know there is a close connection between Santa and St. Nicholas. Nicholas is of course the older figure. A bishop of the church dating from the fourth century from the region of Myra—located in present day Turkey.
We know only a little about Nicholas. We assume that others saw him as a holy man—since he was a priest and then became bishop. He was known for his love of children and to mark his love for the Christ child at christmas he gave gifts. And in giving those gifts Nicholas affirmed that there was something of the nature of Christ in every child. Most stories about Nicholas affirm the bishop’s goodness and generosity and it is not difficult to imagine Nicholas leaving gifts on Christmas eve in secret, outside doors, and dropped trough windows or chimneys for some of the poorest children in his area.
It is interesting that the stories about Nicholas arise around the same time that Christians first became a feast—when people first began to take notice and celebrate the birth of Jesus. Perhaps we can see this period as the first degree of separation from the nativity story. With Nicholas and the fourth century we see the beginnings of many rich and varied celebrations of Christmas.
Christmas is a holiday wrapped in traditions and many families carefully preserve and hand down their unique Christmas customs. Trimming the tree on Christmas eve with carols playing and a supply of hot chocolate and warm chocolate chip cookies before going to church; or opening a single present before turing into bed on Christmas eve—are two traditions among countless ways that families celebrate the feast of the Nativity. Our family looks forward to gathering around the table for Christmas Dinner and opening our stockings before the first service on Christmas Day. Perhaps no other holiday lends itself to tradition and preserving the practices of childhood and days gone by than our celebration of Christmas.
For all the talk about the crass commercialization of the season devoted to the birth of Jesus most families and individuals find ways to celebrate Christmas with intention and meaning. I suspect that each of you have Christmas memories that evoke a sense of joy and wonder—memories that provide comfort and solace. Those good feelings of Christmases past, provide more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane—they have imbedded within us the knowledge that the event of the birth of the Christ forever changed the world—And those memories affirm that the goodness of God lies at the center of the universe.
I wonder if at some deeper level the phenomenon of people donning santa outfits by the hundreds points to a deep desire to share with others an experience—that at its heart is based upon the peace and joy of the Nativity—an event that so clearly proclaims the generosity of God’s love. The story of Christ’s birth reminds us of our deeper longings—And one reason that we gather this evening is to share an experience of belonging.
In the days of Mary & Joseph Bethlehem was a tiny village, nestled into a mountain top, dwarfed by the magnitude of an empire that ruled all of life. As we travel with Mary & Joseph to Bethlehem we see before our eyes how a backwater, obscure corner of the empire with inadequate lodging—is transformed to the center of the universe where the most important event in the history of the world takes place.
The Nativity scene gives us a strange community of: lowly shepherds, heavenly angels, barn animals, a tired father and mother, and at the center of it all, the newborn Jesus laying in a manger. It is a scene of utter simplicity that captures the fragility and vulnerability of our human existence—It is A reminder that the community that gathered around the manger was an odd gathering that looked nothing like the royal entourage of the emperor—and yet that tiny gathering represents the beginning of the community to which we belong. A community that gathers this evening, bringing our concerns, challenges, worries, and fears—along with our greatest aspirations. We Gather Around our altar as a people learning how to: love unselfishly. Learning how to give and to be a part of something bigger—Accepting God’s call to follow the life of this holy child—and receiving God’s great love and blessing.
Most of the santas that I saw that Saturday seemed pretty happy. And I have no doubt that St. Nicholas was an admirable bishop who did great works. On this night, it is our great joy to continue to discover how God in Christ calls us—works through us, and gathers us to be a people transformed by God’s love and grace—to love and serve the world in which we live.
Christmas sermon preached by The Reverend Eric Kimball Hinds at The Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew, San Mateo, California at the 9:30pm service on Christmas Eve and at the 10:00am service on Christmas Day. Lessons: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20.